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Resiliency in the Workforce

Randy Beaton, PhD, EMT, recently rode along with the Everett Fire Department firefighters and paramedics to better understand the pressures they face.

December 5, 2011

What do Everett Fire Department firefighters and paramedics worry about? At the top of the list are sleep deprivation, increased cancer risk, an aging workforce, and increased call volume. This is what NWCPHP faculty Randy Beaton, PhD, EMT, recently learned when he rode along with the Everett Fire Department firefighters and paramedics to better understand the pressures they face.

"Much has changed since I worked with the Everett Fire Department in the 1990s," Beaton explained. "For one thing, the firefighters are almost 10 years older, on average, than they were 15 years ago. When you realize that their labor-intensive emergency duties have not changed much, you can imagine their increased potential for on-the-job injuries and longer rehab times."

In October, Beaton rode along with each of the Everett Fire Department's four shifts to inform his upcoming resiliency training for Everett firefighters and paramedics. In addition to an aging workforce, Beaton found that the annual call volume for the department has dramatically increased. In 1991, they had 31 line personnel and 9,146 calls per year. As of 2009, the department had added only two more staff, for a total of 33 line personnel, while calls had nearly doubled to 18,000 per year.

Not everything had changed, however. Beaton said that sleep deprivation and sleep debt continue to be major issues among firefighters and paramedics, just as they were 15 years ago. But the problems have escalated. "Instead of just complaints about their poor quality sleep, many of them have now developed sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea," Beaton reported. To address this, he will incorporate fatigue management in his training, using a video developed by the Harvard Work Hours Health & Safety Group.

Another part of the training will address what is known, and unknown, about the risks of cancer in the fire service. Direct exposure to carcinogens at fires and hazmat incidents has been linked to higher rates of cancer among firefighters. In reconnecting with the Everett Fire Department, Beaton learned that a number of firefighters and paramedics have been diagnosed and treated for various forms of cancer.

Beaton's ride-alongs revealed that public health must not forget the health needs of its first-line responders. His resiliency training will take place December 27–30, co-facilitated with Everett Paramedic, Roger Vares, Paramedic and Fire Service Instructor I & II. The training is co-sponsored by the Everett Fire Department and the IAFF Local 46 in collaboration with NWCPHP and the UW School of Nursing.

Beaton also recently conducted resiliency trainings at a national level for the Department of Homeland Security.

Dr. Beaton retired on June 30, 2011, but will continue to be involved with NWCPHP's initiatives.

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